Unreasoning and blind hatred come in many forms. History has shown century after century that prejudice, discrimination, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism are nothing new. This has changed little with the dawn of a new millennium. Many reasons exist for repulsion, revulsion, and being repelled by the other. That none of the excuses given stand up to examination means very little to too many. A belief in the inferiority of those who are not of a certain group has been responsible for much of the world's miseries for thousands of years.
Just like a building, a belief is made up of many parts. A structure does not stand upon only one column. Beliefs are not built inside a vacuum. Children are not born with a fully developed and rigid set of certainties, convictions, and conclusions. They grow up observing the world around them. They learn the differences between black and white, us and them, who to love and who to hate.
Prejudice is based upon ignorance and sloth. A prejudiced person or group of people dislikes and mistrusts those who they do not understand and are unwilling to learn about. Prejudice assumes that the “other“ is inferior in some fundamental way. Ignorance and allowing others to think for a group has proven disastrous time and time again. Millions willingly followed first Vladimir Lenin and then Joseph Stalin down the path which led to gulags and a scale of murder on the level of Nazi Germany. Both Hitler and Stalin managed to create a cult of personality which gave them free rein to pursue goals which made the free world shudder. The people were proud to follow such strong leaders. Pride can lead to prejudice which can then lead to discrimination. The Soviet and the Nazi leaders each had an inherent belief in their own superiority. This gave them the “right” to discriminate against anyone who did not fit within the fixed and inflexible limited parameters. The Oxford Dictionary (2012) defines discrimination as “the ability to judge what is of high quality”. The same dictionary also states that discrimination is “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people”. This might have worked very well for the Nazis and Soviets if those who were to be discriminated against were a set and unchanging list. But someone could fall out of favor with the regime without having done anything different than previously. According to Cavendish (2003), Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (head of the NKVD) found out the hard way when he was executed in December 1953. Beria had for years been responsible under Stalin for putting to death those who were to be treated to the ultimate form of discrimination. It is difficult to believe that Stalin was a great judge of quality.
A person, group, or nation that is ethnocentric judges other people and cultures based only upon an understanding of one’s own culture. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were nation-sized laboratories designed to define and create ethnocentrism. However, the two countries went about the process along a path which diverged at a critical juncture. The Communists attempted to create a nation where distinctions between ethnic groups and religions blurred into one homogenous “new man.” According to McFarland (1992), “Soviet ethnocentrism […] correlated very strongly with authoritarianism, indicating that the authoritarian personality was an important source of ethnocentrism and prejudice in the Soviet Union as it is in the West“ (p. 1005).
The Nazi system was also solidly based upon an authoritarian model. The primary difference is that the regime insisted upon a society not of absorption but of expulsion, elimination, and eradication. The National Socialists wanted to create a strong Heimatland by doing away with “weak” elements and corrupting influences. The targets for extermination included Jews, Roma, Communists, the disabled, and the homosexual. Wiping out the supposed diseased parts would result in a much stronger body. The Nazis built strength through amputation while the Soviets did the same through incorporation.
Ethnocentrism can have a positive impact in certain limited areas. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, Vilna Ghetto, and elsewhere were besieged, harassed, and repressed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Jews managed to gain strength through looking inward. They studied Talmud and Torah to help better understand themselves and their repressors. The Nazis did not offer much choice in this case when it came to turning to ethnocentrism. The world around the Jews had gone mad. The Jewish people had to believe that they were superior to those around them.
Cultural relativism is the antithesis of prejudice, discrimination, and ethnocentrism. The core of cultural relativism is that all belief systems have equal validity. One culture cannot be held up as better or worse. This theory is an antonym to that of ethnocentrism. An argument can be made that certain elements of various cultures are repulsive and against human nature. At the same time, this is done through the prism of someone’s own culture. Little chance seems to exist to understand another culture if that culture has never been experienced. Cultural relativism is a byword in Germany today. The nation has learned the lesson of looking for the value in everyone.
Acting under the assumption that all cultures are equal can lead to serious consequences. An earlier example of the value of ethnocentrism was given involving Jews during the Holocaust. Cultural relativism, which can be positive, gave false hope to many Jews before and in the midst of war. A great number chose to stay in place despite the clear warning signs issuing from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and elsewhere. Too many Jews wanted to believe that the vast majority of gentiles valued all religions and ethnic groups equally. The result was that an awakening took place too late for most. Lewis Carroll (2008) might have put it best in Alice in Wonderland with the following statement: “’If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, 'the world would go round a deal faster than it does.’” Prejudice and persecution should go the way of the Dodo.
Barkan, S.E. (2011). Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World, Comprehensive
Edition. Online. Flatworld Knowledge.
Carroll, L. (2008). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org.
Cavendish, R. (2003, December). Lavrenti Beria executed. History Today, 53(12), 54. Retrieved
Keir, G. (Ed.). (2012). Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved from
McFarland, S.G. & Ageyev, V.S. & Abalakina-Paap, M.A. (1992, December). Authoritarianism
in the former Soviet Union. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(6), 1004-
1010. Retrieved from https://ehis.ebscohost.com.